Jesus, Marriage, & Divorce

by Andrew Forrest

Introduction–Jesus is not Santa Claus

Haven’t you ever wondered why, since Jesus was such a nice guy, meek and mild; since Jesus is basically Santa Claus in sandals and a bath robe; since Jesus never wanted to hurt anyone’s feeling–haven’t you ever wondered why Jesus was killed? Jesus wasn’t killed by accident; Jesus was killed because the things he did and said caused people to hate him. Matthew 19-20 is a good example of the sort of things Jesus said that got him killed, because these 2 chapters contain some difficult, explosive teachings from Jesus. In 2019 at Munger, we’re reading through the Gospels over the course of the year, with short readings assigned each weekday. So, each weekday I’ve been trying to write a brief commentary to go along with that day’s Gospel reading. I’m a few days behind, so I’m going to post my comments on Matthew 19-20 in 3 separate posts, one after the other; to understand Matthew 19-20, we need to look at all of Jesus’s teachings together, so be sure to check out each of the 3 posts. This is Part 1: about Jesus, Marriage, and Divorce; Part 2 is about whether Jesus would ever turn someone away [the rich young ruler]; Part 3 is about a truly explosive, troubling parable [the laborers in the vineyard].

Jesus, Marriage, & Divorce

Matthew 19 is a hard passage. It is hard to understand, and even harder to live by. In Matthew 19, Jesus speaks to the topic of marriage and divorce. In this post, I am not going to offer a comprehensive theology of marriage and divorce, and there are lots of questions I’m not going to try to answer; what I will try to do is explain what I think Jesus is saying. Don’t shoot the messenger! So, let’s walk through this passage, verse by verse:

19 When Jesus had finished saying these things, he left Galilee and went into the region of Judea to the other side of the Jordan.Large crowds followed him, and he healed them there.
Some Pharisees came to him to test him. They asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?”

Matthew 19:1-3

Jesus has now begun his journey to Jerusalem. He’s left the Galilee in the north, and has come south. Unsurprisingly, he has drawn a crowd. And, equally unsurprisingly, the Pharisees–who hate Jesus–have come to try to trip him up. Some things haven’t changed; even today, talking about marriage can get you crucified!

The question about divorce is not an earnest, truth-seeking question, because the Pharisees who ask it are trying to set a trap for Jesus. Why is this question so controversial? In the time of Jesus, there were two rabbinical perspectives on divorce: one perspective (from Rabbi Hillel) said that men could divorce their wives for any reason, and the other perspective (from Rabbi Shammai) said that divorce should be reserved for cases of adultery. In both cases, it was understood that only a husband could seek a divorce, and not a wife. Unsurprisingly, the Hillel perspective was the popular one in the time of Jesus.

As he always does, Jesus uses scripture to frame his answer. In fact, he goes back to the very beginning of the Bible itself: Genesis 1-2. (Specifically Genesis 1:27 and Genesis 2:24.)

“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”

Matthew 19:4-6

Note that Jesus doesn’t actually answer their question directly, but instead talks about the purpose of marriage, as designed by God. I think there are 4 interesting implications to his answer:

  1. Our identities as male or female are not an accident, but part of God’s purpose for our lives.
  2. Marriage makes new families. The husband comes from one family, the wife comes from another, but when they get married, a brand-new family is created through them.
  3. The marriage union is meant to be total: in the biblical language, “one flesh.” Marriage is a complete union: emotional, of course, but also, in some mysterious way, bodily as well. The physical result of that bodily union, obviously, is a child. A child is the “one flesh” that results when a husband and a wife come together through sexual intercourse. A child is one, though it comes from two: a mother and a father. Even at the molecular level, this is true: the child has one DNA sequence, but that sequence has been made from the DNA of two parents. There are billions of us on this planet, and every single one of us–without exception, and whether we know them personally or not–has a biological mother and a biological father. The fact that each of us is the fruit of our parents’ union is really astounding, but because it is commonplace, we overlook it.
  4. The marriage union is meant to be lifelong.

The Pharisees reply with an obvious point:

“Why then,” they asked, “did Moses command that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

Matthew 19:7

In other words, they say: “Jesus, that sounds really nice, but if marriage was meant to be life-long, why is divorce sanctioned in the Old Testament?”

Jesus replied, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”

Matthew 19:8-9

Note that the Pharisees say that Moses “commanded” divorce, whereas Jesus corrects them by pointing out that Moses did not command divorce, but “permitted” it. Why? Because the presence of sin requires it, i.e., “because your hearts were hard.” Because all people are sinful, divorce is necessary. Jesus implies that sexual immorality breaks the marriage covenant or somehow makes marriage impossible. In that case, then, divorce is a way of acknowledging that the marriage covenant has already been abrogated.

It is important to point out that since it is only men who were able to divorce their wives in the time of Jesus (and not vice versa), then the practical effect of Jesus’s comments is that they protect women, who, without clear divorce laws, could be cast aside for any and every reason. Jesus’s words sound harsh, but they are actually helpful to women whose husbands wanted to divorce them for any and every reason.

The disciples are shocked at the implications:

“The disciples said to him, ‘If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry.'”

Matthew 19:10

In response, Jesus says that they are correct: this is a difficult teaching:

11 Jesus replied, “Not everyone can accept this word, but only those to whom it has been given. 12 For there are eunuchs who were born that way, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others—and there are those who choose to live like eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. The one who can accept this should accept it.”

Matthew 19:11-12

A “eunuch” is a man who has been castrated so that he is unable to reproduce sexually. Eunuchs were present in antiquity from the Middle East to China and they were often important members of a royal household; because they were obviously unable to found their own dynasties, they were often entrusted with important matters of state.

Note what Jesus is saying:

  1. Some people are, from birth, either not able or not willing to procreate: “eunuchs who were born that way.”
  2. Some people will not procreate because of what other people have done to them. It is unclear to me if “eunuch” is in this instance only to be understood literally–that is, people whose genitals have been cut off or altered so that they cannot reproduce–or if it is also metaphor, referring to something else.
  3. People who freely choose not to marry and reproduce for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Here, “eunuch” is obviously a metaphor. And, Jesus himself is in this 3rd category, since he never married.

This entire passage is extremely counter-cultural.

First, this teaching of Jesus flies in the face of our divorce culture. Since Governor Ronald Reagan signed the nation’s first no-fault divorce law into effect in California in 1969, we have come to accept (not only in law, but in our understanding) that marriage is something that either party can end for any reason whatsoever, and once divorce papers are filed, then the marriage is over. Jesus says that, in effect, marriage is more durable than that, and that regardless of what the papers say, marriage can’t be ended as easily as that. This is a radical teaching.

I am not trying to give a comprehensive Christian understanding of divorce in this post, but I also know that if you’ve read this far, you likely have many questions about grounds for divorce. Remember that this is just one scriptural passage in which Jesus is replying to a specific question put to him about a particular Jewish controversy. So, drawing from the rest of the Bible, here is one answer to the following question.

What behaviors break the marriage covenant and are grounds for divorce?

  • Adultery (Matthew 19:9);
  • Abuse (Exodus 21:10-11);
  • Abandonment (1 Corinthians 7:15).

The words of Jesus on divorce will seem radical to our culture, but his words on sex will seem INSANE. Our culture believes that a fulfilling and happy life must include sex. Think about our advertising–it’s not that our advertisers use sex to sell things–though they do–it’s that they also imply that a life without sex is a life not worth living. Jesus flatly contradicts this implication. In fact, he suggests that some people will choose not to marry and have sex and make these choices out of service to the kingdom of heaven.

One important conclusion we can draw from this passage is that Jesus saw both marriage and singleness as legitimate callings for his disciples. In different times in church history, we have favored one at the expense of the other. Nowadays, we clearly prioritize marriage over singleness, but over the last 2,000 years, there have times when the church has stigmatized marriage and over-praised singleness.

As for other conclusions, I will let you think on these issues yourself. This is just one passage in all of Matthew’s Gospel, which is but one book in the entire Bible–on marriage and divorce, we need to take the whole counsel of scripture. But, what do you think–is Jesus right? Is marriage meant to be lifelong, or can it be ended when either spouse wants to end it? And, is it possible to have a fulfilled life without sex?

Scripture Passage:

Matthew 19:1-12

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